In the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama penned by Tennessee Williams, the brooding, tormented football hero, Brick Pollitt, asks, 'Win what? What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?' His wife, Maggie, responds, 'Just staying on it, I guess. As long as she can.'
If a cat traipsed through a spill of Rutherglen's dark, sticky, treacle-like wine, it would surely keep its footing on a hot tin roof. And in Rutherglen there are plenty of those. About three hours' drive from Melbourne, high in the baking-hot northeast corner of Australia's Victoria state, a handful of tin-roofed - if not tin-walled - wineries produce one of the world's most luxuriant indulgences, a dark, sticky elixir that is oft described as liquid Christmas pudding.
One would never guess it today but, until recently, Australia's wine industry was dominated by intensely sweet, highly alcoholic wines devised to mimic Europe's top fortified specialities - port, madeira and sherry. Thankfully, most have fallen by the wayside but the glorious, silky rich 'stickies' of northeastern Victoria still survive. Largely based on raisined muscat or muscadelle grape varieties, these hedonistic, concentrated, sweet, alcoholic wines are somewhat along the lines of a mad blend of malmsey, malaga and Jerez's PX - rife with molasses, toffee, raisin, walnut and brown spice flavours.
Unlike most sweet wines of the world, such as France's sauternes or Germany's trockenbeerenauslese, Rutherglen wines are not created through the concentrating action of botrytis, or noble rot. Instead, grapes are left to semi-raisin on the vines during the long weeks of the region's dry 'Indian summer'. The thick, syrupy juice is only marginally fermented - to create about 1 per cent alcohol - before being doused with masses of grape spirit to halt all yeast activity and provide biological stability. Anyone who overdosed on holiday sweets a few weeks ago can attest to a long sluggish period of inactivity afterwards and the same goes for wine yeasts. With such high sweetness levels, it is doubtful the yeasts could muster much more alcohol, even after a few years' effort.
The wines are then stored in old barrels and left to languish for years under the region's hot tin roofs. Indeed, Chambers Rosewood Winery, largely considered the region's finest producer of this sticky dark liquid, is just a rambling collection of tin sheds. The heat concentrates the contents of the barrels through evaporation but the wines are topped up only once or twice a decade, gaining complexity and a nutty character from their gentle exposure to oxygen.
In a method similar to those used in Jerez (sherry) and Madeira, the wines are blended across a variety of decades to include minute additions dating from 19th-century wine stocks. When finally bottled, Rutherglen stickies are ready to drink and cannot be expected to age. Serve them in small quantities with, or in lieu of, dessert.
There are only a handful of producers of this silky elixir and by regional agreement the wines are classified into four categories, each progressively richer and more complex: Rutherglen muscat, classic, grand and rare. Rare is, well, as rare as a cat on a hot tin roof, being released only in extremely limited quantities each year.